Letter to Rav Belsky
Adar 18th 5770
To: Rav Yisroel Belsky
Dear Rav Belsky, shlita,
Shalom u’vrachah, I hope that the Rosh Yeshivah is well. Baruch Hashem, all is well with me.
I am writing concerning a letter that the Rosh Yeshivah sent to Dr. Isaac Betech in Mexico which has since been publicized. (If this letter is some sort of forgery, please let me know, but I am assuming that it is authentic.) In this letter, the Rosh Yeshivah states that “the sages of the Talmud were far advanced in all facets of wisdom and correct in every field of knowledge,” that “the sages spoke only the truth and were the repository of all wisdom,” that “so-called contradictions between Torah and science never presented any problem” to you because you “had not come across any that couldn’t be resolved with ease,” and that “every seeming contradiction can be shown to be of no consequence to a seasoned mind.”
As I understand it, the Rosh Yeshivah is not casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the approach of the many dozens of Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim who write that Chazal were sometimes incorrect in their statements about the natural world. Rather, the Rosh Yeshivah is claiming that while this approach is legitimate, it is not necessary for us to invoke it, since all statements by Chazal about the natural world can easily be reconciled with science.
Given this statement, I would greatly appreciate it if, for my own education and for the community at large, the Rosh Yeshivah could explain how the following three statements of Chazal can be reconciled with science:
• The statement of the Chachmei Yisrael that the sun goes behind the sky at night (Pesachim 94b). Every single Rishon that I have seen discuss this (R. Sherira Gaon and R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham, Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafos Rid, R. Eliezer b. Shmuel of Metz, Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, Ritva, R. Manoach b. Yaakov, R. Menachem ben Aharon ibn Zerach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, Radvaz) agrees that this statement should be interpreted at face value, with only Rabbeinu Tam saying that Chazal were nevertheless correct that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and all the rest agreeing with R. Yehudah HaNasi that Chazal were mistaken. (I know that Maharal, Ramchal etc. interpret it metaphorically, but there is no basis for this in the Rishonim, and nor is there any indication in the Gemara that it is metaphorical.)
• The statement that the bat (atalef) lays eggs (Bechoros 7b). Modern zoology asserts that none of the 950 species of bats lay eggs. It is not reasonable to say that there is a mistranslation here; Rashi translates atalef as bat, and no classical commentator has ever disputed this. It cannot be a platypus or echidna (which lay eggs and nurse their young), since these animals do not fly and the atalef is listed in the Torah as a flying creature. Even if one were to posit that it is a bird, which does lay eggs, there would still be a problem in that the Talmud describes it as nursing its young, which no bird does. It is likewise not reasonable to address this conflict by arguing that the Talmud is speaking metaphorically. The statement about bats is not aggadata, but rather part of a discussion about the natural world. No commentator has ever suggested that it is not meant as a factual statement. Nor can one solve this conflict by positing that nature has changed. Modern science asserts not only that bats do not lay eggs today, but that they have never laid eggs. The only egg-laying mammals, the duck-billed platypus and echidna, live in Australia and are physiologically unusual creatures that are on an extremely remote branch of the mammalian family tree, both geographically and physiologically. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom. I understand that some people would simply say that “science is wrong,” but, as I understand your claim, it is that all statements in Chazal can be reconciled with science, not that science should simply be waved away.
• The statement that the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, elephant, and monkey have a gestation period of three years (Bechoros 8a). Again, the context of this statement dictates against a metaphorical explanation, and I have not seen any Rishon or Acharon state that it is not meant literally. Nor would any biologist that I know assert that this statement is true or was ever true.
I eagerly anticipate the Rosh Yeshivah’s response to these questions. The latter two are of particular importance, since I am currently writing a comprehensive Torah encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, and it would be helpful if I could show how these statements can be reconciled with science. Thank you for your time.